Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Exit Here

It seems like a shame to let the week pass without a moment of silence for one of the world's last true citizens: Bill Hicks.

Bill died on February 26, 1994. This past December, had he not died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 32, Hicks would have turned 45 years old, which would have been a sight to see. If his head hadn't exploded from the infectious stupidity that was one of the many banes of his corporeal existence, I think he would have been having a fine old time. Imagine the aging cerebral pugilist unleashing his caustic wit on American Idol, let alone the joyful verbal surgery he would have performed on the current regime.

On Bill's birthday, 2004, I remember being in a dimly-lit, smoke-filled nightclub in London, watching old home movies of his performances that Bill's friend Kevin Booth of Sacred Cow Productions had shipped over so that all of Bill's "goat children," could refill their souls at the well of inspiration.

Come to think of it, he might not have wanted a silence. It's more likely you'd hear a scream.

Here's a couple of decent entry points and a review I wrote of his collected works in 2005

To start, here's a long, rambling, but very earnest essay, "Bill Hicks Is Dead," at Negative Capability.

The official Bill Hicks web site run by the Hicks family, with whom Hicks reconciled in the end.

A classic performance on David Letterman, pre-censoring.

And lastly, my review of Love All The People:

Is writing about comedy like dancing about architecture? I question the logic in collecting spoken word but I think in this case I’ll make an exception. Even in this format, discovering Bill Hicks is a shock to the system. The late comedian is often compared to Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor but in fact had more in common with his own hero, Jimi Hendrix. Like Jimi, Hicks seemed to have been beamed down, did his incredibly bizarre and mind-blowing thing, and split for other parts of the cosmos.

The newly published collection of transcripts, interviews, and other miscellanea is probably not the best way to enter his twisted mind, but it isn’t a bad way to begin and it is not strictly a collector’s item, either. This is a guy who stood up for the disenfranchised, and the marginal and the outraged in America will feel his pain, regardless. A lone scream in a wilderness of mediocrity, he was dead of pancreatic cancer by the age of 32. It’s not much of a punch line.

Born in 1961 in rural Georgia, Hicks eventually hooked up with Sam Kinison’s “Outlaws Comics,” but unlike Sam, whose famous scream was aimed indiscriminately, Hicks was specific in directing his fear and loathing. He attacked not just easy targets like Rush Limbaugh, but also raged against rock stars who hawk soda, non-smokers, and the FBI’s handling of Waco. He was fascinated with UFO sightings, and government conspiracies. Much of the time, he was focused on the dumbing down of America, the machinations of the religious right, and the manipulation of mass media.

“You do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever. End of story. Jay Leno selling Doritos on television? You gotta sell snacks to bovine America now?” He railed against not only the encroaching commercialism of his chosen trade, but also one of his own early role models. This was heady stuff in a time when the most successful comedians of the day included Andrew “Dice” Clay and Carrot Top.

At his peak, Bill was doing more than 300 shows a year, not only in the states where he remained largely anonymous, but also here in England, where he is still hailed as an artist. Hundreds came together in late February to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his death and most walked away with copies of this book. It is surprising how shocking Hicks’s material when laid up against the typical Tonight Show comedians, whom he dismissed as “Joke-Blowers.”

Hicks’s comedy wasn’t sanitized for television, nor did he lease his obscenity for the sake of easy laughter. He was nasty, yes, but he was also darker than most other comedians in a much more disturbing way. “I’m a little dark poet tonight,” he liked to warn the audience.

“By the way, if there’s anyone here in Marketing or Advertising,” Bill said solemnly one night. “Kill yourself. There’s no joke coming. Seriously, kill yourself. There’s no rationalization for what you do, you are Satan’s little helpers. I’m just planting seeds, folks.”

His entire act was censored by producers at the David Letterman show after the network said that he had pushed too many hot buttons in a set that included abortion (“Leave those unwanted babies on the steps of the Supreme Court. You said we had to have them? Then you guys RAISE THEM.”), children’s books about gay lifestyles (he kind of dug Heather Has Two Mommies,) and the absurdity of the Easter Bunny. The entire set is reproduced for the first time in Love All The People.

In spite of his confrontational style, Bill was also interested in expanding his mind. Although he became a recovering alcoholic in his early twenties, he endorsed the use of psychedelic drugs, and investigated meditation, psychic phenomena, and many other metaphysical techniques. He ended his Revelations shows in London by declaring, "The world is like a ride in an amusement park. And when you choose to go on it, you think that it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds can be. It’s fun for a while. Some people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, ‘Hey, don’t be afraid, ever, because…it’s just a ride.'”

Bill Hicks died on February 26, 1994. Among his fans are widely recognized performers such as Janeane Garafalo, who narrates a new documentary on Hicks playing on Trio, and rocker-cum-poet Henry Rollins, who says of Hicks, “He was hilarious, brilliant, brave and right about everything.”

Denis Leary, who has gone on to television fame himself, has been widely accused of lifting much of the material from his first album, No Cure For Cancer, directly from Hicks’s sets. One of the last jokes passed around on Hicks fan sites goes, “Why is Denis Leary more famous than Bill Hicks?”

“Because there’s no cure for cancer.”

Monday, February 26, 2007

Oscar Nods to Crime

Can I call it or what? Here's an excerpt from my November 2006 column in Bookslut, praising last night's Best Picture.

"I’m digging the visceral, straight up violence of Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-worthy, bloodthirsty epic The Departed. It’s one of those flicks that is so immensely luminous that you wonder how the hell it didn’t start out life as a crime novel. Yet at the same time, it’s so truly cinematic that it couldn’t possibly translate in prose. Sure, all the Tarantino-esque cinema geeks are going to bitch that it’s a shot-for-shot translation of the admittedly terrific Hong Kong original Internal Affairs. The fact is that it’s been translated so thoroughly into the streets of South Boston that the original, surprisingly, pales by comparison. Between Jack chewing through scenery like a cheerleader on crank, the verisimilitude brought by the local boys Wahlberg and Damon, and the surprisingly method chops of the pint-sized Leo, you’d be hard pressed to find a better crime story this year."

We also saw nods to Pan's Labyrinth, another post-modern genre construction and a huge leap forward in quality from Guillermo Del Toro that belies the awkwardness of Hellboy and Blade II. Alan Arkin, who so memorably played the shrink in my favorite film, Grosse Pointe Blank, and did terrific work as Yossarian in Catch 22 and George Aaronow in Glengarry Glen Ross, wins the actor's award for playing a foul-mouthed septuagenarian heroin addict, the most together character in Little Miss Sunshine, a film full of flawed human beings.

Forest Whitaker wins well-deserved acclaim for a performance in Last King of Scotland that, though brilliant, is not the non-fictional biographical sketch that most audiences think it is. It's based on Giles Foden's biting novel, a historical fiction that embraces Idi Amin from the absolute worst point of view: right next to the monster.

All in all, not a bad night for the crime/fiction universe at all. I don't even have anything caustic to say about Ellen's surprisingly decent take on what has to be a very tough gig.

No, I save my bile for Will Ferrell. What the hell was that ungodly musical catastrophe about? Oh, that's right. It was about prostituting once-decent comedic actor Jack Black for the sake of promoting his self-indulgent Tenacious D flick, making sure that the publicity train wreck for Ferrell's disastrous performances in Stranger Than Fiction and Blades of Glory stays on its ill-fated course, and... I don't know what in god's name John C. Reilly was doing there. The man did star turns in Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Chicago and The Hours. Maybe he's the only one that can sing. Come home, John. All is forgiven.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Kirkus Reviews: Mystery Special

George Carlin used to say that the name of this game is "Dig me," so here goes.

I'm pleased to divulge that the new Kirkus Reviews book special has been published and it's a subject near and dear to my black little heart: Mysteries and Thrillers. I wrote a good-sized chunk of it, interviewing some very cool writers along the way. My contributions include the features on Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosley, James Bond, and Alexander McCall Smith and spotlights on new books from CJ Box, Donald E. Westlake and Ridley Pearson.

Let me share a little insight into the creative process: trying to compress a one-hour interview with a guy like Walter Mosley down to a 300-word feature is like trying to make a diamond from a rock, using only your forehead.

Oh, the special is in .PDF format, so you need an Acrobat Reader to open it. Note that because it's a big graphic-intensive file, it might take a minute or two to load.

The Kirkus Reviews Mysteries and Thrillers Special: a lot of bloody murder. In a very small box.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Shotgun Tuesday

Happy February 20th. I don't know whether it's just Fat Tuesday but the weirdest triptych of events tied to this peculiar day keep popping up at me.

If you're of a musical inclination, today is Kurt Cobain's birthday. The future lead madman of Nirvana was born on February 20, 1967. He stuck around for a few years, married a stripper named Courtney, developed one hell of an ulcer, made a beautiful baby, bent everyone's sensibilities with five albums of brain-splintering music + lyrics, effectively killing hair metal, and split for other parts of the cosmos. The dumb son of a bitch would have been forty today.

For you literary types, today is the death of gonzo. At 5:42 in the afternoon of February 20, 2005, the good doctor Hunter S. Thompson left the world via self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His final column was about playing shotgun golf with Bill Murray, who portrayed Thompson in "Where The Buffalo Roam." On the typewriter in his office he had typed a single word: "Counselor."

And after those cheerful observations, there's this weird coda. It is, I kid you not, National Pancake Day. You can get a free short stack at IHOP in exchange for a donation to children's hospitals.

John Steinbeck would say that next up is Lousy Wednesday, which is the necessary precursor to "Sweet Thursday." I hope the author would have appreciated this weekend's Profitable Sunday, during which a rare edition of his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath sold at auction for a staggering $47,800. The family says the money will be used to fund the renovation of Steinbeck's bungalow in Pacific Grove, California, which seems a very decent aim.

Go eat pancakes. Read a little "Cannery Row." And for chrissakes, don't shoot anybody.

The Detective of Bethlehem

Briefly, I wanted to recommend this well-written feature in the Boston Globe: "Reporter Captures Fabric of Middle East in Novel." It features an interview with Matt Beynon Reyes, the author of "The Collaborator of Bethlehem," a terrific new novel from the daring Soho Press.

There also should be a review of the book in the next issue of Bookslut, composed by the talented Colleen Mondor. Until then, you can also check out this video introducing readers to the world of Reyes' fictional Omar Yussef.

Buy The Collaborator of Bethlehem

Friday, February 16, 2007

Boy Blue

I'm not much for true crime accounts. My dearly departed grandmother could get down on a murder book, sitting in her rocker, smoking, reading about torsos. For all my interest in bang-up crime novels, I can't ever quite get past the human factor in most true crime accounts, which often revel in a kind of tabloid glee about the horror of it all.

That said, I strongly encourage reading the cover story of this week's Philadelphia City Paper, edited by another great crime writer, Duane Swierczynski. Sarah Weinman is a writer that I admire, the first mystery columnist at Bookslut and a sharp contributor to both the publishing blog Galleycat and her own respectable Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind. Sarah has outdone herself with "Boy Missing," which chronicles the 50-year-old mystery of a poor dead kid in Philly who has never been identified. The piece is a hell of an article, utilizing Weinman's evolving writing talents and her education in forensics to great effect. But it's also poetic in illuminating the effect a single death can have on the people working the case and the community in which it occurs.

Heartbreaking stuff.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Valentine's Day Massacre

This book has been out a while, but it makes for a great Valentine's Day present for just about anyone you know, beloved or otherwise. Here's my lengthy review of "Love is a Mix Tape," a heart-blistering memoir by Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield. It's the V-Day special at About.com's superb Contemporary Literature room, hosted in earnest by my friend Mark Flanagan.

For Rolling Stone scribe Rob Sheffield, love was reduced to a box of dusty cassette tapes, a passion requited but nevertheless unfulfilled, and the ghost of "a real cool hell-raising Appalachian punk-rock girl." Love, in his fractured world, is delivered with unflinching honesty through an uneven but unusually satisfying concoction of equal parts nostalgia, profound sorrow, terrible insight and the haunting meaning buried in half-forgotten tunes from the alternative era....If you're coming along, better slip on a Rolling Stones b-side or a Johnny Thunders solo record, partake of whatever substance eases your load, and we'll continue. This is going to hurt...

Friday, February 9, 2007


That's the sound my head is making right now after an exuberant three hours at the dentist. No more sparkling diatribes from me until next week.

I leave you with a link to my review of "The Alexandria Link" by Steve Berry in today's Rocky Mountain News, a short piece that contains the poetic phrase, "characters with the gravitas of Cool Whip."

Now I'm going to go stick my head under an ice pack and try to get over playing "Marathon Man," the home game.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Hard Case Strikes Again

Charles Ardai and his team at Hard Case Crime are always on the case. On top of publishing a fascinating, truly motley collection of pulp classics, lost works and new crime fiction - including most recently resurrecting a lost manuscript by Mickey Spillane - it turns out they're branching out into the movies. Via a note from the man himself:

"The gist of it is that we've hooked up with Papazian-Hirsch, the producers of (among many other things over the past 30+ years) the outstanding HBO series "Rome," to create a series of Hard Case Crime movies," Ardai writes. "These are early days yet, so just how many films will get made or which of our books they'll be based on is still up in the air -- but we definitely feel we're in good hands, and will keep you posted."

As reported in Variety:

Screen time for crime

Papazian-Hirsch Entertainment has formed a producing partnership with James Polster and Charles Ardai to develop feature projects based on the Hard Case Crime novels.

First film, aimed for lensing later this year, will be "Little Girl Lost," based on the Richard Aleas novel about a young detective who discovers that his high school sweetheart has just been found brutally murdered on the roof of New York's seediest strip club.

"Richard Aleas" is a pen name for Hard Case Crime publisher Ardai, who will collaborate on the screenplay with Polster ("The Rape of Richard Beck") and James Hirsch. Robert Papazian and Hirsch will exec produce.

"These movies will adhere to the visual and storytelling style that have made the Hard Case Crime novels so popular," said Papazian and Hirsch, co-producers on HBO's "Rome" and the "Raw Feed" DVD thrillers distributed by Warner Home Video. "We want to capture everything that makes these books irresistible, from the great plotting and hard-boiled action to the film noir atmosphere, which just begs to be brought to the screen with musical scores by the legends of American jazz."

Hirsch told Daily Variety that the pics will be budgeted in the $5 million range.

Ardai, the founder and CEO of Internet company Juno, launched Hard Case in 2004 with the aim of reviving the pulp era crime novels of the 1940s and '50s. The imprint, a venture of Winterfall, includes novels by Stephen King, Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, Pete Hamill and Donald E. Westlake, as well as pulp era authors such as Cornell Woolrich, David Dodge and George Axelrod.

I mentioned Hard Case way back in 2005 in a very early Bookslut column about John D. MacDonald. I'm definitely going to have to revisit them at some point and cover their admirable efforts in more detail. From Bookslut:

I like to think that MacDonald would have approved of the new Hard Case Crime line of pulp-style paperbacks. Novelists Charles Ardai and Max Phillips have revived an inspired mix of lost crime books from a whole line of MacDonald’s contemporaries and authors I’m sure he influenced. So far the series holds right upagainst Vintage Crime and other respectable, murderous houses.

Hard Case has been doing good work. I’m always happy to see Larry Block’s back catalogue back in print and the editors at Hard Case have managed to dig up "Grifter’s Game" from the celebrated New York writer. Other authors in the series include Donald Westlake, who writes the Parker novels under the aforementioned Richard Stark pseudonym; Max Allan Collins, who is riding the success of "Road To Perdition;" Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason; and David Dodge, who wrote "To Catch a Thief." They have fantastic covers, too. Robert McGinnis, who created the original James Bond posters for the Sean Connery films, is one of the painters chosen to recreate the visceral sixties style of these old dime novels.

Hard Case has even managed to land Stephen King, who has composed an entirely new book for the line, "The Colorado Kid," to be published in October. Following the story of two newspapermen and their investigation into a death in Maine, King says his new book is“more bleu than outright noir,” but it should fall comfortably into Hard Case’s two-fisted tradition.

UPDATE: Another quote from Ardai in the full press release from the whole messy affair:

"“Some of the most popular films of the past fifteen years belong to the same pulp tradition as Hard Case Crime,” said Ardai. “Whether you’re looking at a down-and-dirty story of crooks and cops like 'The Departed' or a heist story like 'Ocean’s Eleven' or a cat-and-mouse story like 'The Fugitive' or a revenge story like 'Kill Bill,' you’re looking at classic character-driven crime fiction done with enormous style and energy."

Classy, that Ardai with his fedora hat and his Internet fortune he's squandering on printing these little books we love. And before I forget, it's worth gossiping that the new edition of "Ocean's 11" that comes out later this year (read: to cash in on the release of "Ocean's 13") will include a new documentary about heist pictures and heist novels featuring interviews with Ardai and members of his gang including Jason Starr, the co-author with Ken Bruen of "Bust" and Peter Pavia ("Dutch Uncle").

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

February's New Hotness

More from me: The February issue of Bookslut came out today and includes my latest column. This month's transmission includes interviews with several thriller writers including debut novelist Steven Hall discussing The Raw Shark Texts,CJ Box analyzing his squinty-eyed cowboy Joe Pickett in Free Fireand Ridley Pearson talking about Killer Weekendas well as his gigs playing bass for The Rock Bottom Remainders.

Elsewhere in the issue you can find interviews with Robert Olen Butler, Clifford Chase, Heidi Julavits, and Edmund White as well as Colleen Mondor's very thoughtful exploration of "Boys and Comics," Chris Zammarelli's roundup of banned books, and Liz Miller's crack at the Oscars.

On the subject of cross-pollination of work, it turns out that thriller writer Stuart Woods is a pilot, which enabled me to sell this feature out in the the aviation world.

In other news, Steven Hall revealed on his site that Canongate is producing a viral film to promote The Raw Shark Texts that will star none other than Tilda Swinton.

Also, The New York Times has named the latest novelist commissioned to produce a serialized work for the newspaper's weekend magazine. It's Ian Rankin, of all people, who follows in the footsteps of Elmore Leonard, Patricia Cornwall, Michael Connelly and Michael Chabon. Don't they know that this is a disrespectable genre? All them literary critics are going to get confused.

That's it. I've spent all day deconstructing a new pop culture memoir and finishing up interviews with some very serious British literary novelists including at least one Orange Prize winner and a couple more who are in serious danger of getting longlisted for the Man Booker. Time for me to unwind and find out who capped Superman.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Another Payback

I'm fairly excited by this weird little addition to the DVD release list:

Payback - The Director's Cut

There were always major problems with the original, despite Brian Hegeland's dark direction. I love Kris Kristofferson but you knew he was sleepwalking through his role. Mel Gibson on the other hand, managed to suppress his natural inclination to smirk through all of his post-Mad Max roles and deliver a performance that's not bad. It's certainly not all teeth-gritting intensity like Lee Marvin in Point Break but Gibson definitely had some insight into Parker's dead-eyed intensity (which could have come in handy when he got arrested not so long ago). And, let's face it, it has Maria Bello, Deborah Kara Unger and Lucy Liu in all their scenery-chewing glory. What's not to love?

Unfortunately, halfway through production the suits at Paramount freaked out and handed the entire piece to production designer John Myhre, who reshot a full third of the movie. I'm told the new version cuts Kristofferson's performance entirely, promises more savage violence, and sticks much closer to the uncompromising character inspired by the original Parker.

While I'm on the subject, why the hell does Hollywood insist on changing the names of all literary characters? For the few who are uninitiated into the wonderful world of Parker, the character was created by the gifted Donald E. Westlake, publishing under the pseudonym Richard Stark. "Parker" is as common as popcorn at the movies but the character has never been portrayed under his own singular name. Lee Marvin plays "Walter" in Point Blank, football player Jim Brown plays "McClain" in The Split, Robert Duvall operates as "Earl Macklin" in The Outfit and Peter Coyote is "Stone" in Slayground. Gibson, as we all know, is "Porter," which is close but no cigar.

I asked Westlake about this odd turn of events a few months ago when we were discussing the fact that the author's comedic oddjob artist John Dortmunder has been played by Robert Redford (in the original, The Hot Rock) as well as George C. Scott, Christopher Lambert and Martin Lawrence in films too questionable to be listed here.

"It’s not as bad as Parker, actually," Westlake said, chuckling. "The first time they used Lee Marvin in Point Blank, which is a great movie. George Segal is in The Outfit and that was well done. The football player Jim Brown is in The Split, which is not a wonderful movie. Then the third one happeened when Jean-Luc Godard took another one that had been published in France in which he turned Parker into a girl reporter played by Anna Karina (Made in U.S.A., 1966). An old friend of mine said, 'So far, Parker’s been played by a white man, a black man and a woman. I think the character lacks definition.'"

Here's hoping Brian Hegeland is able to inject a little more definition back into Parker's world.

Oh, by the way - Westlake's choice to play John Dortmunder? Harry Dean Stanton.